The Shack: “But it’s just fiction…”

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Even though I just posted a review of The Shack on the ABI website by Glenn Kreider, I wanted to take a few moments to further discuss an issue that I have both read and heard in a sort of defense of the book – the “fact” that The Shack is fiction.

Although The Shack was self-published by a then-unknown author, it ended up on Amazon.com, reached “critical mass” through word-of-mouth – and the rest is history.

To put things into perspective concerning the incredible popularity of this book, consider the following statistics for all book sales in 2008 (from Publisher’s Weekly):

#1 –  A New Earth by Eckhart Tolle: 5,298,355 copies sold
#2 – The Shack by Wm. Paul Young: 4,432,439 copies sold

Sales of The Shack remain strong this year, with the Evangelical Christian Publishers Association continuing to list the book at #1 this month (up from #3 last month) (I assume this is August over July).

I just checked on Amazon.com and there are currently 3630 reviews of the book. A few months ago, I read through many of the reviews and by far the majority were not just positive – but ranged from “glowing” to “gushing.” The following quote by Scott on January 30, 2008 probably captures the sense of the “best of the best” reviews:

This is probably the most profound and best book I have ever read in my entire life. It has brought me totally back to God. I have never felt better. I totally identified with Mack and the Great Sadness which has been in my life also.

However, despite incredibly strong sales and broad popularity, it has not been received well by many theologians. There has been extensive and sometimes scathing criticism of the theology in the book. And yet for all the negative critiques and many warnings that The Shack has poor theology and is even heretical, there are many more who defend the book on the basis of its effect on them personally. Many attempt to deflect any and all criticism of the book on the basis of it merely being fiction. But this begs the question: Just what was it about The Shack that affected them so deeply at both an emotional and spiritual level? The answer will always be something along the lines of: “It is the presentation of God in a new, insightful, convicting and comforting way.”

What, then, would be the short version of that answer? It is the theology – it is the teaching about God.

So, then how should we classify this novel?

Is it theological fiction?

Or is it fictional theology?

If it is fictional theology, then it is theology that has no biblical basis. That would make it heresy by definition. So, one can’t claim that it is fictional theology and still defend it as a basis for personal spiritual growth, comfort and encouragement.

But what about theological fiction?

If it is theological fiction, then wouldn’t it have something of a parallel in the genre of historical fiction? How does historical fiction work? In general, it uses (and must use) true historical events as a framework for the book. For example, no historical novel could ever put the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1950. If it did, then such a book would be relegated to “fictional history” – and no one would take it seriously from an historical perspective.

However, many people do take The Shack very seriously. And those who do take it seriously now view God differently than they did before. In other words, their theology has changed. But their new theology is not found in the Bible. And not only is this new theology not biblical, it actually contradicts the theology of the Bible. Therefore, any emotional or spiritual impact that The Shack might have is based on something other than the truth – which in other words, is a lie. Quite obviously, believers cannot base their spiritual growth on a lie. If they try to do so, something might happen, but it can’t be called “spiritual growth.”

Beyond this, Glenn Kreider points out in his review that Mr. Young actually admits that the essence of the book is rooted in his own personal experience. He claims to have had conversations with God. In The Shack we don’t simply find monologues by the main character, Mack – but rather dialogues between Mack and God. In some way, this is what Mr. Young is claiming happened to him.

And not only that, but Mr. Young’s purpose for writing the book was to provide some sort of documentation of these conversations with God to his children. In other words, from his perspective he is writing about real events. Real events are the framework – making it theological fiction. This means that Mr. Young’s intention is not to simply write fiction – but to convey what he believes to be real events and very true theology – with fiction only serving as a vehicle. The Shack is essentially a documentary.

Some have suggested that The Shack is the Pilgrim’s Progress of this generation. But make no mistake, John Bunyon’s very clear intent was to convey theology – and he simply used fiction (in this case an allegory) as a vehicle.

In the same way, The Shack is first and foremost a theology book. It is a theology book just as much as is Ryrie’s Basic Theology or those written by Chafer or Grudem or Berkhoff or Geisler.

I continue to hear stories of The Shack being used as a basis for Sunday School lessons and Bible studies. It continues to be recommended among friends, in blogs and in book reviews. But do we really want to be responsible for teaching or recommending something that contains false teaching about God to others? Do we want to attribute our own personal spiritual growth to heretical views of God?

If you haven’t done so, I encourage you to take some time to read the review on the ABI website – and do a search for other articles that discuss the many heretical views set forth in The Shack.

It’s not just fiction.

Dave James
Ministry Coordinator
The Alliance for Biblical Integrity

8 Comments
  1. Dave, this is very well said. Thanks.

  2. God – the one and only one real, true, living God – created human beings for love, for fellowship, and to have a real relationship with Him. That purpose has not changed. God provides the means of knowing Him through the Truth (His Son Jesus Christ), through the Holy Spirit living within those who put their faith in Him (God – with a capital “G”), and through His inspired Word, the Bible. Nothing has changed. The one true and living God is unchanging. He is our rock which remains steadfast and secure, and His Word is the revealed truth about Him.

    When I read that the reasoning for and acceptance of this book is because “it is the presentation of God in a new, insightful, convicting and comforting way” I immediately say NO. God is already revealed truthfully in His Word – the Bible, not “The Shack” – and that Word is the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. Don’t add to it (Rev. 22:18). Keep the conjecture out of the revelation of God, and don’t attempt to feed minds with warm and fuzzy fictional representations of a Holy, Righteous and Almighty God. Examples of people who did this are given throughout the Bible, and the consequences of doing such are real and sobering. Don’t juice the Almighty God down to the level of fiction. Don’t bring Him down to a human level. Don’t try and make us “feel better” by bringing us “back to a god (little g)” that is false, because that god is a creation of man’s thought processes.

    God – the one true and living God – was not created. He is Alpha and Omega – the beginning and the end – Who was, and is, and forever shall be. Respect God for who and what He is, and treat Him with the total respect He deserves. The Shack give false hope about a false god, and the eternal consequences of having faith in a false god are real – and not what readers of “The Shack” are hoping for…

  3. The tragedy is that far too much of present day “theology” is fictional rather than rooted in the solid Truth of God’s revelation of Himself in Jesus Christ and the Scriptures. Not only are individuals reading the book as fiction but even church groups are using this book as a “Study Guide” while the rate of Biblical illiteracy is truly alarming.

  4. I agree with your analysis, Dave, and with what Char wrote. This certainly is not the Pilgrim’s Progress of the 21st Century. Not even close.

    However, I think for Christian evangelists considering this book, we should not just ask “What is wrong with it?” but also “What is it about the book that touches people’s hearts and creates in them a yearning to know God?”

    Clearly, the author has touched a chord. In reading the book, I often found myself saying “Yes, this is an accurate and moving depiction of the heart of the God who loves me and whom I love.” Then a few pages later, I would say, “That is Biblically inaccurate.”

    When I finished it, I wondered what to do with it. There was something of value in it and yet there was also something terribly wrong with it. In the end, I decided to give it to one of my sons to read, but not the other. I had a sense that this son had the discernment and Biblical knowledge to see the flaws and, at the same time, would benefit from the author’s depiction of the heart of God towards us. I believe, in retrospect, that I was right.

    My conclusion is that the book, in some circumstances, could be useful, provided it is accompanied by solid Biblical teaching that exposes its flaws.

    • I found myself having a similar reaction at times – thinking, “that was pretty profound” or “I need to think about this in my own life,”etc. But actually, this is one of the things that concerns me most about the book. The average Christian isn’t going to pick up the Book of Mormon, for example, and begin reading it for spiritual insight, encouragement or comfort – even though there are undoubtedly truths in it that reflect biblical truth.

      However, average Christians (by the millions) have read The Shack looking for and finding these things. And because of the increasing problem of biblical illiteracy, many do not have a theological foundation for sorting out the truth from error. In The Shack truth and heresy are hopelessly intertwined – even within one sentence in places.

      It’s not much different than putting blue-green D-Con pellets in a bowl of Fruit Loops cereal. A well-fed person who knows what Fruit Loops and rat poison look like probably wouldn’t even try to sort through it – but would look elsewhere. A starving person who is familiar with the two, might try to avoid the rat poison in order to get the nourishment that the cereal provides. But another hungry person, who knows very little about Fruit Loops or D-Con would just start eating everything – and it would kill him.

      This analogy very much fits The Shack – and I do think it is imperative to not only ask “What is wrong with it?” – but to alert others to exactly what those problems are. I would not recommend this book to anyone who is not knowledgeable about the Bible and theologically astute. And then it would be for the purpose of research, not for the purpose of helping them grow spiritually. There are many other resources that are equally good in the good parts – that also avoid the problem of mixing truth and heresy.

      Dave

  5. Dear friends, the Shack is a work of fiction. However within it lies the very truth that many theologians and christian leaders would keep secret from us…God is wanting a personal relationship with each and every one of His children. Not through theology, not through another person but through that only way to reach Him; His Son Jesus Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit.

    Why decry a book that has helped thousands start/restart this relationship with their God. Yes, some of it does not match up with what some theologians say the bible says but remember this…God reveals His word to man through His word….so stop peopel using the book as His word and warn against it BUT don’t lose the good that is contained within it.

    I would be very choosy who I would recomend the book to and certainly not to unbeleivers but who knows what the power of God can do even through a book that is not automatically ‘correct’

    Remember this also, Only God has the answers and theologians have been known to be wrong and also to argue amongst themselves as to the meaning..please don’t be so arrogant as to take the path and statement ‘we are right’ as the only time you are going to know that is when you stand before the Judgement seat of Christ….beware that’ 1Judge not, that ye be not judged. 2For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged: and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again’….

    • Tony, thank you for your comments and observations. I appreciate and understand your viewpoint.

      At the same time, I have some genuine concerns with this approach to the Shack.

      Although it is true that some theologians and Christian leaders have kept secret God’s desire to have a personal relationship with us, by and large this is not true of evangelicals. Rather this is part of the gospel message itself.

      You note that this relationship comes through Christ alone, but The Shack nowhere presents the gospel clearly. It just doesn’t tell people how to enter into a relationship with the Lord in a biblical way. So, if that is one of the goals of the author – and I believe it was – it just doesn’t fulfill this goal. Neither is it The Shack’s author’s view that salvation is found only through personal knowledge of Christ and a personal relationship with him.

      And if you “certainly” would not give it to unbelievers, then you seem to recognize that the theological problems are significant enough that the potential benefit is not worth the risk.

      You mention that The Shack has helped thousands start / restart a relationship with God. But I’m not persuaded that this is true. Since it doesn’t clearly present the gospel, that precludes starting a relationship with God. Someone might be saved after reading the book, but it would almost have to be in spite of the content, not because of the content.

      Also, the Bible reveals the God who must be the object of our faith. However, the god portrayed in The Shack is not the God of the Bible. In the Spanish-speaking world, there are many who are named “Jesus” – but none of them are the Jesus of the Bible and none of them should be the object of our faith. In the same way, the god of The Shack should not be the object of our faith. The god of another religion may be viewed as the powerful creator, but if this god is not the God of the Bible, and we worship this other “god” then we are guilty of nothing less than idolatry.

      And since only in the Bible do we find the saving gospel of Jesus Christ and since it was God’s intent to communicate truth to us, if we don’t know some things for certain – particularly about God’s nature and the salvation he offers, then God has failed. We all have a responsibility to be right about who Christ is, who we are and the way for us to have our sins forgiven and receive the free gift of eternal life. We must be right about at least these things or we cannot be saved. And of course, you also believe you’re right about this. That doesn’t mean you’re being judgmental anymore than I was being judgmental in discussing the problems in The Shack.

      The pattern of the entire New Testament was to expose false doctrine and to teach right doctrine – so the review and critique of The Shack is only a matter of following the pattern of ministry that the Lord has given to us. In contrast, The Shack promotes false doctrine, obscures much of the correct doctrine it does present and completely leaves out crucial doctrine related to entering into a personal relationship with Christ.

      Again, that you for commenting.

      In His Care,
      Dave James

  6. I agree that this book is so full of leaven, it is not even worth reading.
    What I have trouble wrapping my mind around is , how supposedly mature Christians who seem to have the heads on straight, can read a book like this and also books like Joel Osteen’s, and see nothing wrong? What is wrong with this picture?
    I know many people like this. What is the explanation?
    Jodi


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